A good friend of mine is thinking about taking a European river cruise next summer. I’ve highly encouraged him to do so. Sharon and I found it was a great way to view the countryside from the comfort of our own river boat. It was a kaleidoscope of meandering past scenic pastoral scenes, vineyards that climb up the mountainside and tiny towns nestled among the bends and curves of the river.
Without raising too many alarm bells, this might be a good time to grab the chance at such a river cruise. The lingering effects of the pandemic can still be felt among many potential passengers. Prices continue to climb and worse yet, water levels on many of the Europe Rivers have reached a crisis level. River cruises as we’ve come to know them may be curtailed or sharply restricted in the future until these issues can be resolved one way or another.
It was only a couple of year ago that Sharon and I were on a river boat meandering south along the Saone River heading for Nice in the South of France. In a strange sort of way it was deja-vu for me all over again. I was finally completing a journey I had started and failed to complete back in the winter of 1967.
Paris has always been a seductive mistress. As the song title goes, ‘The Last Time I saw Paris,’ it was a much different time and I was in a much different place in my life. My first sojourn into the city of lights was supposed to be a simple pass-through as part of a full-blown retreat from the harsh winter in Denmark.
The experience of living in Denmark had been exhilarating at first. But gradually my daily work routine had grown stale with a lack of friends and no clear direction in my life. The South of France seemed a logical answer to a young kid who was ill-equipped and clothed to face that Nordic reality. Tall tales of warm sunshine, topless sun bathers and easy work was enough to lure me into a false sense of road security. I was assured that a quick thumb and ready smile would take me to those rocky shores in just a couple of days.
By the time I got to Paris, all bets were off. As I trudged through the city searching for enlightenment I only got hustled by Gypsies instead. After three days of aimless wandering I was ready to cash in my pocket money for a ticket home and three steady meals a day. I found a travel agency, got a one-way ticket home, and left on a silver bird the next day.
Paris has always been that stand-alone, a bit stand-offish kind of friend. At once it can be charming, brash, conceited, seductive, alluring and always surprising. Taken on its own terms, the city offers sunlight and sin on an equal basis. This fourth trip through Paris would mean three days in the city before we boarded ship for our cruise to Nice.
The city is different now than back in the 60’s. Ornate low-rise buildings have been toppled by towering glass hi-rise commercial enterprises. There are more tourist boats on the Seine than commercial traffic. Bike-sharing stations pepper the city with their light blue bikes while the new tour buses squeeze into narrow side-streets that even an old donkey cart had a hard time maneuvering. Signs of progress are everywhere but nowhere as dramatically as on the ring route and major arteries that are clogged with vehicles of every size, shape, and purpose from morning to night.
The city has evolved and changed yet feels much the same as it did back in the Fall of Sixty-Seven. The locals have long grown used to the artists, vagabonds, tourists and people of the streets who wander by their doorsteps in search of enlightenment. The smell of cooking, cleaning and daily living still permeates the side streets and dark alleys.
There’s a Parisian phrase that goes: ‘On the Left Bank, we think and on the Right Bank, we spend.’ I have little interest in the Right Bank where towering glass institutions of commerce and wealth line the Seine. My heart and my head are back on the Left Bank where Montmartre and the Latin Quarter still attract all kinds of creative spirits. The quaint cafes, dark narrow alleys and winding streets are still filled with the polished and unwashed alike. And while the new Bobos (bohemian bourgeois) fake their artistic lineage at gallery openings, true artists continue to live in squalor and strive to find meaning in life itself.
The trip south to Nice was uneventful, restful, and easy on the feet. It gave me plenty of time to ponder the times gone by and the journey I never completed back in ’67.
The first time I stumbled into Montmartre I ordered a coffee at some small corner café. It was a thick black muck that gripped my spoon and burned my throat. No wonder all the pretty young girls were sipping theirs so slowly and taking forever to finish their thimble-sized drink. The small cafes of Nice were no different. It brought back a plethora of memories.
This time around, I found a small café next to a flower shop. I ordered a beer and slowly began sipping it - French style. Crowds brushed past my chair and dropped cigarette butts at my feet. The rush of humanity flowed unabated in a steady stream past the café. I was invisible to all of them and liked it that way.
They were all looking around but not seeing a thing. Neither the flowers, the glorious sunshine nor the warmth of France. It was just another day on the coast for them. It was the end of the journey for me. Older, somewhat wiser, and a lot more miles under my belt; I was finally home.